WEEKEND READ: The Central Asian express

Russia's decision to allow Spain and Germany to send troops across its territory looks like favouritism for the NATO partners that have tried to avoid criticising Russian foreign policy.


The Federal Customs Service of Russia has given the German military approval to transport weapons and other military equipment and goods by train through Russia to German units in Afghanistan, according to a statement issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry on November 20. That same day, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed a decree giving Spain permission to send troops and supplies through Russian territory to support the Spanish presence in Afghanistan.

The offer comes as the United States and its NATO allies are contemplating alternative supply routes to Afghanistan due to the increasingly unstable security situation in Pakistan. The various routes that have been considered – including a route through Georgia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus and a Central Asian route through Kazakhstan and/or Turkmenistan – are both logistically and politically complex and would be difficult to operate. Not only do they require much more resources and time, but both routes are in Russia’s near abroad and would therefore need Russian approval if not outright logistical assistance. Russia is currently working to consolidate its influence in these areas, and allowing access to outside forces – especially NATO members – does not fit with its game plan.

Unless, that is, the NATO members in question are states that do not oppose Russian actions or act against Moscow’s fundamental interests.

Germany, due to its geopolitical position, has walked a fine line between the United States and Russia. Berlin was much softer in its response to the recent Russo-Georgian war than some of its European neighbours and did not issue the same harsh rhetoric against the Kremlin. Germany, primarily driven by its dependence on Russian energy, has also made a point of opposing Georgian and Ukrainian NATO accession – an issue crucially important to Moscow. Spain has been much quieter in its reaction to these developments and far less bellicose toward Russia than the United States and its other European allies. It is therefore no coincidence that Russia has chosen to allow Spain and Germany to traverse its territory.

It should be noted that German and Spanish military contributions to Afghanistan are relatively small (yet still significant) at about 3,300 and 800 troops respectively, so this development alone will not solve NATO’s much larger logistical problems. Access to Russian territory would, however, help NATO forces in Afghanistan and could provide them relief from the tumultuous conditions in Pakistan and the complexities of alternate routes.

Russia’s approval to Germany and Spain serves as a reminder that it is willing to support states that do not act against its interests, and that choosing to work with the Russians can be very beneficial. It also shows that Moscow is quite willing and eager to pick apart the NATO alliance at any chance and to prove how crucial it can be in providing the West access to Afghanistan and the wider region.

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